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Ever since his days as a young professional bike racer, it seems, Christophe Bassons has been fighting against doping in sports. A member of the infamous Festina team in the late 1990s, he proved to be the only rider on the team who did not dope. Such news earned him the nickname of “Mr. Clean”—a moniker that gained him praise and criticism alike. Doping, of course, did not stop with the Festina Affair and Bassons was often ridiculed within the peloton for his strong anti-doping stance. Feeling increasingly ostracized, he left the professional ranks in 2001. But the Frenchman did not stop in his crusade against doping, and today he works for the French Sports Ministry where he holds the position of Conseiller Interrégional Anti-Dopage de Nouvelle Aquitaine. And it was here, in a regional race in southwest France, where Bassons uncovered the most recent mechanical-doping case in the sport when he uncovered a motor in the bike of a regional category 3 racer this past weekend. PELOTON caught up with Bassons to discuss the latest mechanical-doping case along with the state of the sport’s most recent struggle against cheating. Bassons, we discovered, is quite optimistic.
Words by James Startt | Image courtesy of Christophe Bassons
PELOTON Magazine: Christophe, you are once again in the news as you were the person that caught 43-year-old cyclist Cyril Fontayne with a motor in his bike during a small regional race this past weekend. How did that come about?
Christophe Bassons: Well, first, I had information coming from some cycling races in my region that put into question several performances of the rider in the last three or four races he was in. It was only last Monday, barely a week ago [September 25] that I was alerted to the situation, or the potential situation. I started investigating, first by looking at some pictures that had been posted on the internet of the races in question, and I was easily able to find several images of the rider. I zoomed in on a couple of images that confirmed for me that he had a motor on his bike.
PELOTON: What exactly did you see that caught your attention exactly?
Bassons: There were four things really. First off, the bike was just plain too small for him. Secondly, around his handlebars, there was a fifth cable that had no reason to be there. It wasn’t the cable for his computer and his bike was equipped with traditional derailleurs, so normally there would be four cables, two for the brake shifters and two for the front and rear derailleurs. Then, his water-bottle carrier on his down tube was attached externally and not using the bolts that normally just screw into the frame. That alone made me suspicious, because I know that it is impossible to fit some motors into the down tubes with the water-bottle-rack screws. It just won’t fit in. And then, lastly, his water bottle on his down tube was always the same and always in the exact same position. That made me suspect that there was no water in the bottle, but rather a battery for a motor.
PELOTON: Interesting. And why the small frame?
Bassons: Well, from what he told me, it was a frame that he ordered from Asia that had a certain-diameter down tube, one big enough for the motor. At the time he placed the order, they simply didn’t have his size, so he went with a smaller-size frame.
PELOTON: He got his frame from China, but where did the motor come from?
Bassons: In France. He ordered it from a French constructer, Vivax. You can find it on the internet for 2,700 euros. It wasn’t even a very sophisticated model.
PELOTON: Obviously motor-assisted bikes are a big part of the market today, although most are aimed at the commuter cyclist. How many companies are there producing motors for bikes today?
Bassons: I don’t know to be honest, but Vivax alone sells about 40 per month for all kinds of bikes.
PELOTON: It’s somewhat ironic that Fontayne said in the French press that he didn’t use the motor to win races but simply so that he did not suffer so much as he was coming back from an injury. But yet his performances stood out enough to arise suspicion on the regional level.
Bassons: Absolutely. Several of the races that he entered were mixed-category events and he was climbing faster than the Category 1 riders, yet he was just a Category 3 cyclist. It’s true that he had been injured but he told me that the real reason that he used the motor was because he was convinced that others were doping and he was sick of getting beaten. Also, several riders were riding and working together in what we call a “mafia” and he just kept getting beaten. For him, mechanical doping was the best way to combat what he considered real doping.
PELOTON: That’s ironic really, because that has been the age-old argument by those caught doping. They start doping because they are sick of getting beaten by others who they are convinced are doping. That pretext has been around nearly as long as the sport.
Bassons: Exactly. He started to use this bike on August 21, at least in racing, and he raced five or six events with it. That’s not many really, but that is because we caught him quickly. That said, when I showed up at the race, nothing in his riding gave the motor away. I was 95-percent sure he had a motor in his bike, but I watched him for 25 laps and didn’t see anything in the way he was riding that made me think he had a motor. He wasn’t pushing a huge gear too easily or anything.
PELOTON: David Lappartient, the new UCI president—along with the current French Cycling Federation president—has really been emphasizing the need to fight more against mechanical doping. That said, there have only been three cases in the amateur ranks, some of them, like this one, in relatively minor ranks. But obviously many authorities feel that the threat is much greater.
Bassons: Yes, for sure. If a rider like he can do it, then others certainly can. And he is obviously not the first. We discovered others in the last year as you mentioned and there were likely others. But it is only recently that, when a rider is producing suspect performances, we consider mechanical doping. For too long, I think, we remained focused on traditional pharmaceutical doping. What is positive in all of this, however, is that it is a lot easier to catch somebody with a motor. As this case demonstrates, I was alerted to the situation and in the matter of a week, the rider was caught. And when you are caught with a motor, well, you can’t contest the facts. And there are no complicated anti-doping tests that need to be performed. You don’t have to send samples to a laboratory and wait for the analysis. All you have to do is take apart the bike and you can see clearly if there is a motor.
PELOTON: And obviously the problem for the image of the sport is that some suspect that, if a Category 3 rider is capable of putting a motor in his bike, then it would be even easier for a professional organization with much greater means to do the same thing. What do you think? Do you think motors have been used in the pro ranks?
Bassons: Well, I don’t see any reason why they haven’t been. And maybe there still are isolated cases today. I don’t know. But one thing is certain: The technology is getting more and more sophisticated. Fontayne used one of the first models, but the motors are getting smaller and smaller with batteries that are lighter and lighter, et cetera. Nothing leads me to believe that there haven’t been motors. Everybody wants to win in bike racing and, in addition to that, there is the financial factor at the higher levels of the sport, which obviously facilitates matters. But the one thing that really helps us in the fight against this kind of doping is that a motor is simply much easier to detect. If we want to find motors in bikes we can!
PELOTON: Do you feel that the methods used today are sufficient for detecting motors? At almost all the races now I see UCI officials scanning bikes….
Bassons: Well, I don’t think that the scans are reliable enough with the new kinds of motors, but it still is not hard at all to see a motor in a bike. All you have to do is take out the seat post and shine a light down the seat tube. It’s that easy. It’s a bit more complicated with wheels, but it is possible. And that is the good news.